Health and Medicine

A Study Of Couples In Conflict Links Anger to Heart Problems and Hiding Emotions to Back Problems


A couple study done by UC Berkeley and Northwestern University found heart problems to be related to anger, and back pain correlates to holding back true feelings. The study was based on how couples act while in conflict.

Psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study says the findings show an entirely new level of precision in how emotions are linked with overall health. How we behave over time can help to predict health problems that may be developed as we grow older. The study was published in Emotion journal and contains data from two decades worth of research. Factors controlled for included age, education, exercise, smoking, and alcohol and caffeine use. As a whole, the link between emotions and health were strongest in husbands. The team was able to look at conflicts that lasted a mere 15 minutes and accurately predict the development of health problems that would occur decades down the road based on their emotional responses to the argument.

Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy says the study makes it possible for people to take a closer look at their behavior so they can prevent the onset of serious conditions later on in life. For a healthier heart, find ways to tone down the anger and for muscle tension and back pain avoidance, pinpoint areas in your life where you can freely express how you truly feel.

Levenson has a history of studies where he looks at the inner workings of long term couples. The couples who took part in this particular study have been tracked since 1989 and are now aged between 60 and 90 years old. Every five years, couples were brought to a laboratory and recorded as they discussed their lives, both the good parts and the difficult aspects. Interactions were rated by expert behavioral coders for a range of emotions as well as behaviors that were based off of their facial expressions, body language and voice tone. Each participant also completed a detailed assessment of their health problems.

While sadness and fear were thought to be predictors of health outcomes, the study did not show any significant associations in those areas. Anger and what researchers call “stonewalling” were the two most vulnerable actions that directly related to health concerns.

In order to pinpoint moments of anger, researchers took a close look at videotaped conversations. They searched for pressed lips, knitted eyebrows, tight jaws and dramatic changes in tone of voice. To look for stonewalling behaviors, stiffness of the face was observed, rigid neck muscles, and lack of or minimal eye contact. The data was directly linked to health symptoms which were measured every five years up until the 20 year mark.

Individuals who were seen in the conversations as more on the angry side had a much higher risk of experiencing chest pain, high blood pressure and a range of other cardiovascular problems in the long run. Those who were seen minimally speaking or avoiding eye contact were more prone to backaches, stiffness of the neck, joint pain and overall muscle tension.

Levenson says it’s been common knowledge for quite some time that negative emotions are associated with negative health, but this study dug a lot deeper into pinpointing specific emotions to look out for. Knowing this information can be used in order to develop better reactions and outlooks on life to live a much healthier life as a whole. This work may be used in medical and counseling settings to help people lead their best possible lives and stay on a healthy track to a long-lasting and comfortable life.